I’m Depressed — My Social Media Post Said So

Computer program claims to detect moods from Instagram

It might be tempting these days to rely on an app to determine the mental health of a potential employee, friend or coworker — given how much the digital world drives our lives.

But would it be a reliable assessment?

Physicians only accurately predict depression in patients 42 percent of the time.

Maybe. A new study claims to be able to predict depression among Instagram users — results that could be useful for employers investigating potential hires, assisting doctors working with patients, helping insurance companies assess fees for customers, and getting people to treatment faster.

But all of these uses carry a heavy burden in terms of liability and privacy issues — which the study did not address. Physicians, among others, warn of the risks of taking programs like this too far.

Researchers from Harvard University and the University of Vermont-Burlington assessed four areas of photos posted on Instagram by volunteer participants: color and brightness of photos; number of people depicted; the use of Instagram filters; and the number of likes and comments on the photo.

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The theory is that depressed people use drabber colors, often post solo pictures, favor filters that alter images to be low density in color — and don’t get a lot of interaction with others regarding their posts.

The results turned out to be an accurate determination of depression 54 percent of the time. That may not sound all that impressive — until you consider that physicians accurately predict depression in patients only 42 percent of the time.

The algorithm was even more successful at determining who was healthy among the rather small group of 166 study participants. It had an 84 percent accuracy rate on health.

“Because we see Instagram as a place to build a ‘brand,’ there are many ‘health’ accounts that are run by people who are truly and deeply sick,” said one psychologist.

Although the new report captured the interest of many psychologists, others doubt its ability to get at the truth. Dr. Jameca Woody Falconer, a licensed psychologist in St. Louis, Missouri, doesn’t put much trust in the study results.

“Facial expressions are not indicative of mental health,” she told LifeZette. “Depressed and anxious patients can laugh and smile just like individuals without those diagnoses. An individual could be sad and lonely but walk into a mall and snap a photo with strangers with a caption, ‘Look at all of my friends.’ Social media is really more about what you choose to show the world versus who you really are.”

Social networking can actually help mask and hide mental illness, depression and serious addictions, according to Kaila Prins, a coach specializing in disordered eating based in San Jose, California.

“Many people who are suffering from disordered eating, which is often highly correlated with depression and anxiety, are actually using Instagram to hide their mental health situation,” Prins told LifeZette. “Because we see Instagram as a place to build a ‘brand,’ there are many ‘health’ accounts run by people who are truly and deeply sick — but you’d never know it. Their entire account is just a series of colorful photos of ‘clean’ food, hash-tagged #paleo, #vegan, and #glutenfree.”

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These types of social network users craft their own “brand,” said Prins, often with canned upbeat posts from a health company, which is paying them for their work. Then they build a system of friends and sell them on their latest diet product, often with a “front” of happy photos. She warns people to beware of a sudden touting of a diet product.

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Cathy Nesbit, a social media director in Fort Smith, Arkansas, said she can tell a lot about people by their social media posts — but she stops short of mental health predictions.

“You can tell maturity level, work ethic, degree of self-involvement, philanthropic action, general citizenship, plus so much more just by looking at someone’s social media,” she told LifeZette. “Maturity and self-esteem are two big things people reveal by their posts.”

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While a computer program may pick up on subdued colors and images, it can’t see nuances such as sarcasm, ridicule and current pop themes. After a very popular post by a celebrity, for example, there can be thousands of copycat posts, imitating or making fun of the famous person.

A computer program or app can be fooled, especially by people wishing to give a false impression, said Dmitri Oster, a licensed clinical social worker and credentialed criminal profiler with One World Counseling in Brooklyn, New York.

“Human intelligence can never and should never be abdicated in the face of technological advances,” he told LifeZette. “Without a trained and experienced human eye and mind, technology is operating only in the shadows.”

Pat Barone, CPCC, BCC, is a professional credentialed coach and author of the Own Every Bite! bodycentric re-education program for mindful and intuitive eating, who helps clients heal food addictions. 

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